We get one month.
For the rest of the year, artists of color are often overlooked when museum curators and gallery owners don’t come calling. But in February, “Black History Month,” the shortest month of the year at 28 days, it becomes possible to find thought-provoking, exciting, beautifully-rendered work by artists of color who will go back to being invisible again once the month is over.
But hey, we get one month, so let’s make the most of it.
The best place to start may be with “Legacy of the Cool: A Tribute to Barkley L. Hendricks,” currently on view at the Bakalar & Paine Galleries at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Spanning all media, it is a show of 25 artists of color who have been inspired in part by the work of Hendricks, a painter and photographer who became famous over his long career for his vibrant, regal portraits of people of color, modeled after the stately court portraits kings and popes once commissioned. When he first came to prominence, his work stood out in a snow-white art world. That never changed, even in recent years, when Hendricks continued to surprise by painting regular neighborhood folk — for instance, a black man in dreadlocks and SpongeBob boxer shorts — but with all the loving attention and detail of a Velázquez painting.
“Representation matters, especially in the art world, where it’s still overwhelmingly white, and at all levels — artists, galleries, museums, directors,” says Darci Hanna, associate curator of the Bakalar & Paine Galleries. “This is really about self-representation for these artists.”
The show idea occurred to Hanna, an avid Instagram follower, just after Hendricks’ sudden death last April at 72. Hendricks, a professor emeritus of studio art at Connecticut College, had developed many admirers in the art world. After his death, Hanna witnessed an overwhelming outpouring of grief and gratitude on social media.
“I was floored,” she says. “For days, all I saw was these really heartfelt tributes to Hendricks, particularly among younger artists, talking about how important his work was to them and how important it was to see a painting of someone who looked like them in a gallery space. Many of them talked about that first time seeing his work, and how it really resonated. I thought that was really powerful.”
It was in the mid-1960s that Hendricks began painting his friends, family and community, but with an iconic gravitas that instantly gave the artist a cachet of cool and an outsized influence among younger artists of color who viewed his work as empowering. His 1969 painting, “Lawdy Mama,” was one of his most famous, and depicts a young woman with a bountiful afro, painted on a gold-leaf vertical canvas suggestive of a medieval altarpiece. That inspired a whole new generation of artists to represent themselves and their community with a fullness, depth and reverence rarely glimpsed anywhere else. The artists on view in “Legacy of the Cool” all have this reverence for the figure, but their work is otherwise fascinatingly diverse and spans painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, illustration, digital media, conceptual art and ceramics.
Zanele Muholi is a South African “visual activist” who documents black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in various townships in South Africa. James Brooks is a Southern California illustrator and designer who presents digital self-portraits on an iPad. Delphine Diallo is a Brooklyn-based artist showing perfectly-styled portraits of men and women snapped at an Afro-punk festival. Ekua Holmes, a Roxbury native and assistant director of MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships, presents colorful mixed media collages reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence. Keith Morris Washington, who teaches at MassArt, shows a portrait of him and his daughter holding a picture of his deceased son on a flattened, patterned background, very much in the vein of Hendricks.
Aside from Muholi, Brooks, Diallo, Holmes, Washington and Hendricks himself, (six Hendricks paintings are on view) the full roster of participating artists includes Elia Alba, Taha Clayton, Nona Faustine, Kris Graves, Tomashi Jackson, Rashid Johnson, Simone Leigh, Nate Lewis, Steve Locke, Brianna McCarthy, Ari Montford, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Deborah Roberts, Curtis Talwst Santiago, Amy Sherald, Xaviera Simmons, Tiffany Smith, Shawn Theodore and Hank Willis Thomas.
“Most of the artists in the show are also representing their contemporaries, so it’s really topical,” says Hanna. “A lot of them are dealing with all sorts of contemporary issues. You can’t help but have some that are more politically charged and talking about issues that are important right now, like systemic racism. But they do come from all angles.”
But for artists of color, is there a downside to looking for “representation” on gallery walls? Does being an artist of color mean that you must inevitably be pigeon-holed as “political” if you hope to be “relevant"?
Interestingly, Hendricks himself railed at such confinement. He told anyone who would ask that he painted what he wanted to paint and because he liked to paint. Weary of being pigeon-holed, he stopped painting portraits for 20 years and switched instead to painting landscapes. He only returned to portraits in the 2000s.
Hanna says she was mindful of that while putting together the exhibit, which she says was never intended as a “Black History month” show. Circumstances, she says, forced the exhibition into February. Still, given the current political climate in which just being black seems to be a political statement, now is as good a time as any to see the diverse range of concerns being addressed by artists of color.
“Legacy of The Cool: A Tribute to Barkley L. Hendricks” is on view until March 3 at MassArt’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries. The exhibit is free and open to the public.